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April 5th, 2013:

Friday random ten: Fifty states of random, part 3

Our tour of the musical United States comes to an end this week.

1. Nebraska – Bruce Springsteen
2. Mimosas In Missouri – Eddie From Ohio
3. Mississippi Delta Blues – Elena James
4. Pennsylvania Six-Five Thousand – Glenn Miller
5. Sweet Rhode Island Red – Ike & Tina Turner
6. Do Not Go To Tennessee – Austin Lounge Lizards
7. Texas Flood – Stevie Ray Vaughan
8. Virginia – Deep Dark Woods
9. Washington Bullets – Phil Rockrohr and The Lifters
10. Carolina In My Mind – James Taylor

I had to cheat a little with that last one in order to get to ten songs. Still, that’s thirty out of fifty states represented in my collection, which is not too shabby. If your collection includes any states that I missed, leave a comment and let me know. Maybe I’ll take a tour of cities next, I haven’t decided yet.

House debates its budget

As you know, yesterday was Budgetpalooza in the House.

The House budget puts more money into public education and less into health and human services than a Senate proposal that passed the upper chamber last month.

“No one is or will be entirely happy with this bill, but there is something for everyone this year,” House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said two weeks ago after his committee approved its version of Senate Bill 1.

[…]

It will be a strikingly different scene from the Senate, which passed its budget proposal last month after about four hours of discussion. Traditionally, senators do not amend their budget plan from the Senate floor. State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, offered an amendment on the bill related to school finance but then withdrew it.

After the House passes a budget bill, both the House and Senate will appoint conference committees to resolve differences between the two proposals.

Neither budget completely reverses last session’s $5.4 billion in cuts to public schools, a goal many Democrats have said is a priority. Several House members have filed amendments attempting to put more money into schools.

Other legislators hope to amend the budget to put more money for uninsured care or specific types of care.

An amendment from state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, aimed at increasing payments to health care providers serving Medicaid patients could spark a protracted discussion over whether Texas should accept federal dollars made available through the Affordable Care Act and expand Medicaid.

House members could also see themselves drawn into debates on hot-button cultural issues. State Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, has several amendments aimed at reducing state funding earmarked for “alternatives to abortion” and putting it toward other women’s health services. An amendment from state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, would block funding for “gender and sexuality centers” at higher-education institutions.

A group of Republican freshmen have filed more than three dozen amendments that would take money away from various state programs and agencies and putting the funds into TRS-Care, the group health insurance program for the Teacher Retirement System, which is projected to have a shortfall by 2016.

TRS-Care has since said that they did not support the freshlings’ effort to de-fund various things on their behalf. A number of those hot-button amendments concerning abortion and women’s health were subsequently withdrawn in a bit of bipartisan detente, which if nothing else should make the whole thing go by a bit more quickly. There are still a lot of other issues to be debated, not all of which get much attention but all of which matter a lot to the people affected by them, and a few messages to be sent. One of the messages sent was about vouchers.

About eight hours into the House’s debate on the state budget Thursday, lawmakers in the lower chamber sent a clear signal about their position on private school vouchers.

An amendment from state Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Corpus Christi, that would ban the use of public dollars for private schools, passed 103-43 with bipartisan support.

“What this amendment basically does is say that you cannot use public money to support private institutions with vouchers,” said state Rep. John Otto, a Dayton Republican who is the House’s head education budget writer.

As they say, this is a big deal. Even Tom Craddick voted against vouchers, amazingly enough. If you listen carefully, you can hear Dan Patrick grinding his teeth. The Observer, Trail Blazers, and Texas Politics, which notes that despite this vote vouchers aren’t quite most sincerely dead yet, have more.

In the end, the House debated the budget well into the night, until almost 10 PM according to Rep. Gene Wu, who heroically live-tweeted the whole thing; BOR liveblogged it as well. Given the big vote in favor, it’s likely that nothing too horrible happened, but we’ll assess the damage later. It’s on to conference committee from here.

There’s no such thing as a free road

I have an issue with this.

Texas’ boom of toll roads has made the “free” part of freeway mean something different lately.

As toll lanes become the preferred choice for adding capacity to Texas roads, a growing number of state lawmakers and toll critics are looking for assurances that state-built freeways will stay open to everyone. Coming up with a precise set of rules, however, is proving trickier than expected.

“I believe free roads should remain free,” Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, told the Senate Transportation Committee last week.

Campbell is working with Texas Department of Transportation officials to craft a more detailed version of SB 1029, her bill to prohibit existing state roads from conversion to toll lanes. A similar bill by Rep. George Lavender, R-Texarkana, is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday before the House Transportation Committee.

Last week, TxDOT officials expressed concern that Campbell’s bill could have unintended consequences and curtail upcoming toll lane construction.

[…]

Without an outright ban, critics worry TxDOT will take roads away from motorists, said Terri Hall, founder of San Antonio-based Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, an anti-tax and anti-toll group. She called efforts to toll U.S. 281 north of the metro area “truly highway robbery.”

TxDOT officials stressed that none of their plans include converting free lanes to tolls. Major projects TxDOT has tackled in the past five years mostly were funded by borrowing, state officials said.

Using the paths already carved by freeways makes sense, toll proponents said, especially in places already suffering from heavy congestion.

“The most effective means of addressing that congestion is to add capacity within those corridors,” said C. Brian Cassidy, a lawyer with Locke Lord LLP in Austin, who focuses on transportation and infrastructure law.

“Tolls are not taxes,” Cassidy said. “Tolls present a choice and, more importantly, they present an option to fund and deliver projects.”

Here’s SB1029. I agree with the argument that roads that were built with public funds and which are currently not tolled should remain toll-free. I also agree that there should be some legal safeguards to ensure that public, toll-free roads are properly maintained and not neglected as as way to enable toll roads, especially toll roads built in part or in whole with private capital, to meet revenue targets. But if we’re going to put restrictions on TxDOT and other road-building agencies, we should at least be honest with ourselves as to why toll roads are all the rage these days. You know where I’m going with this – the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised in 20 years and is unable to provide sufficient revenue for Texas’ transportation needs. To his credit, Sen. Kevin Eltife has touted a gas tax hike and inflation index to help deal with this. I don’t share Sen. Eltife’s obsession with debt, and I strongly oppose a sales tax increase as a way of dealing with TxDOT’s bond load, but at least Eltife recognizes the problem and is willing to talk about solutions. (Sen. John Carona has also supported increasing and indexing the gas tax.) I’m willing to support Sen. Campbell’s effort here, but she needs to be willing to acknowledge that you get what you pay for, roads included.

Houston may ban texting while driving

This will likely come before City Council later this year.

Houston will consider an ordinance banning texting while driving if the Legislature again fails to enact a statewide ban, Mayor Annise Parker said Tuesday.

Parker, flanked by 30 people ranging from high school students to the fire chief, announced the official start of the city’s campaign against texting while driving.

Known as It Can Wait, Houston, the program will use social media, news media and community activism to get the word out, the mayor said.

While officials believe Houston is the first U.S. city to take on the issue with a major campaign, the local program mirrors the 3-year-old It Can Wait program started nationally by AT&T.

Noting that April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, the mayor characterized texting while driving as an epidemic that cuts across all communities.

“We have to change the culture that says, ‘I’m just taking my eyes off the road for a moment. It’s no big deal,’ ” Parker said at the news conference, held in the City Hall rotunda. “But it is a big deal. It kills people.”

Here’s the Mayor’s press release, with a long list of task force members. You can see the video Mayor Parker made with rapper Bun B here – I’ll bet that’s a sentence you never expected to read. There were a number of bills to ban texting while driving filed for this legislative session, but after Rick Perry vetoed such a bill in 2011, I didn’t see the point in following them. I expect the Mayor to bring an ordinance to Council after the Lege adjourns because there won’t be a statewide law coming any time soon. West U and Bellaire already have texting while driving bans in place, as do a number of other cities including Austin and San Antonio. It’s fine by me if the city addresses this – it’s pretty common for me to see people fiddling with their phones while driving these days, and Lord knows the streets around here are adventuresome enough. Hair Balls has more.

Ashby Highrise gets its permit

Ready or not, here it comes.

Look out below!

The city of Houston [last] week granted full permitting approval for the 21-story apartment building planned near Rice University at 1717 Bissonnet and Ashby.

An existing apartment complex at the site is now vacant and will be demolished soon, the developers recently said. But one major piece of the puzzle is still missing: a general contractor.

Last week, the head of Linbeck Group said the company had withdrawn from the project.

Developers Matthew Morgan and Kevin Kirton of Buckhead Investment Partners said they have nothing yet to announce on Linbeck’s replacement, but information would be “forthcoming soon.”

See here and here for previous updates. CultureMap notes that since Leo Linbeck III lived near the Ashby location, with Linbeck Group out of the project there may not be any force for neighborhood mitigation. We’ll see what the next step is for the folks that have been fighting this for so many years.